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Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2007 03:18 am

Ties that bind

The source is different, but lead poisoning is problem here, too

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JoAnn Lemaster
PHOTO BY JOE COPLEY
Untitled Document JoAnn Lemaster gasps when she learns how high children’s blood-lead levels are in La Oroya, Peru. As a member of the Illinois Childhood Lead Poisoning Advisory Council, Lemaster is accustomed to dealing with problems caused by lead, but she wasn’t aware of the current crisis in the foreign city. “That’s heartbreaking,” Lemaster says. Childhood lead poisoning is not nearly as severe in Springfield and other Illinois cities as it is in La Oroya, but Lemaster says that the state’s children have continued to display blood-lead levels of more than the recommended limit of 10 micrograms per deciliter. According to statistics, Illinois ranks first in the nation in too-high blood-lead levels among children ages 6 and under. In 2005, 66 percent of children tested had blood-lead levels between 10 and 14 micrograms per deciliter, 19 percent had levels between 15 and 19, and 1 percent had levels of 45 or higher.
Gary Flentge, division chief for environmental health at the Illinois Department of Public Health, attributes the high levels to the state’s aggressive blood-testing program. He says that the department began tracking childhood lead poisoning in 1973, whereas most other states did not start tackling the problem until the ’90s.
The presence of older homes in cities such as Springfield and Chicago also contributes to high levels of childhood lead poisoning, Lemaster says.
“Typically the rule of thumb is that any home built before 1978 has a high likelihood of having lead in the house,” she says. “The lead paint creates dust, which is breathed in by all members of the family. With the oral behaviors of very young children, they will be inhaling and ingesting that lead.”
For these reasons, Lemaster says, Springfield is one of seven areas in the state targeted for more screenings and education to prevent childhood lead poisoning. Statistics show that 3.8 percent of children tested in Sangamon County have abnormally high blood-lead levels — one of the highest incidence rates in the state. Several Springfield agencies have taken notice of the problem and implemented prevention and intervention measures. The Office of Planning and Economic Development recently finished its first $2.16 million grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for lead-hazards control. During the grant’s three-year term, the office conducted 228 lead assessments, cleared 154 residences of all lead hazards, and screened 5,000 children for lead poisoning. Chet Schneider, the office’s operations coordinator, says that he is working on securing a similar grant that would take effect in 2008. Flentge recently began working with the Illinois Lead Program, a new initiative formed when the Illinois Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program merged with the Environmental Lead Program last November. He says the program has been active in locating childhood lead poisoning and its sources by screening more than 300,000 children a year and educating families on lead’s harmful effects. “Lead poisoning is just that — a poison,” Flentge says. “Lead is a toxic metal to our body. There is no level that is safe. “Any amount of it is causing some damage, and it is irreversible damage if it occurs.”
As part of her work with the advisory council, Lemaster also helps promote prevention of childhood lead poisoning. She encourages parents to check labeling in toys, jewelry, watches, and purses for lead warnings; to provide a healthy diet containing fruits and vegetables for their children; and to encourage children to wash their hands and to play in grass rather than in dirt.
The most important thing, Lemaster says, is to increase awareness and availability of lead screenings. “We need to bring more awareness to the public and parents,” she says. “I’d really like to emphasis the prevention part: Get your child screened as early as 6 months.”

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.
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